If you're anything like me, you're a fan of the Jason Bourne books. I was absolutely honored to have an opportunity to speak at-length with Eric Van Lustbader, who inherited the series from the late great Robert Ludlum. Lustbader has written seven books in all with more on their way. His most recent, The Bourne Imperative, continues the series that has so many readers desperately wanting to know what happens next?
Lustbader was remarkably down-to-earth for an author who has sold millions of copies of his books which have also spawned the film series starring Matt Damon. What exactly does it take to craft a story that has readers licking their chops? How do you live up to the expectations of a readership who has grown to love the original author? All answers to questions I had to know. In my interview with him, we spoke about his writing process, how he became involved in the series and why his eye is toward self-publishing in the near future.
Were you a fan of the books before you started writing the Bourne series?
Lustbader: Oh yeah. Well, first of all, Bob and I were very good friends. We met in 1980. That was a great year for both of us because The Bourne Identity came out and The Ninja came out for me. We shared an agent, and we met at our agent's party. Bob wanted to meet me, which was very unusual because he was kind of curmudgeonly in those days, and it turns out that he had read The Ninja and loved it, and we sat and talked all night about character development and story arcs and how to create thrillers, and we became very good friends. By the time he passed away in 2001, I knew Bourne backwards and forwards. The man who handles the estate, asked me if I would be interested in continuing the Bourne series. Well, I said I'm not continuing the Bourne series because Bob never meant it to be a series, but the films were coming out then and he had the great idea of putting a book out every time a film came out. I thought it was a great idea, and I said to him, "I'm not a writer for hire, so don't ask me to write in Bob's style," and he said, "No, write it in your style," and I said, "I'm not a ghostwriter, so I don't want to do it if my name isn't going to be on the book." He thought about it for a second and he said, "Okay, fine." So, that's how that happened. He said, "You're the only person I really want to do it because now you're the only person alive who knows Bourne as well as Bob did." So, by the second book he gave me the ultimate compliment -- he said to me, "Bourne's your character now." There are a number of deceased authors whose estates have hired people to continue their books, but mine is the only one that is really so successful, and I think it's because I knew Bob so well and I know the character so well.
When you're working on these books, do you still have remnants of an outline of what Robert Ludlum wanted or are you completely doing this from scratch?
Lustbader: Oh no, I've been doing them from scratch from book one. Bob didn't leave any outlines or anything as far as the Bourne books were concerned. As I said, he never considered Bourne a serial character. He wrote Identity and he was already very popular when that happened, but that launched him into the stratosphere, and of course his publishers wanted a sequel, and he said, "No, I don't want to do that." It was only, I guess, 6 or 7 years afterwards that he called his agent and said, "I have an idea for a story. I can either do it as a stand-alone or as a Bourne novel, what do you think?" Our agent said, "I think you should do the Bourne book," so that's how The Bourne Supremacy happened. By that time, Bob was older because he didn't get into writing until later in life because he was a producer and a stage actor. He had his own playhouse in New Jersey for a long time. He got into writing because he could no longer make a living at the playhouse. So, by the time he wrote the second Bourne book, he was older. He made Bourne older, Bourne was married and had two kids, and that's not what you do with a serial character, so I had to think about all those things when I decided to take up the series because I always think in a macro way. I sat down with the executor of the estate and my agent and I said, "Look, if this is going to be for the long haul, we've got to think about the character in a different light. He can't be married, he can't have kids, because what are you going to have him do? Are you going to have Marie get kidnapped every time or him coming back to the kids? He can't meet any women. It's just no good." So, between books one and two, I had Marie die in a skiing accident and the kids were shipped off to Marie's parents. They have a farm in rural Canada, so the kids are off there and now they're kind of forgotten and we can go on with Bourne being as ageless as James Bond is and meet women characters he can fall in love with or have some kind of relationship with and people not say, "Hey, wait a minute, he's married. You can't have him do that." Also, I said, "Look, there are going to be a tremendous number of people coming to this series from the films who have never read the books before, and there has to be some sense of familiarity with that character," and so I tried to - without changing him - make him kind of an amalgam of the old character and the character that was created for the films that Tony Gilroy created.
Let me ask you about your writing process, though. Are you an outliner?
Lustbader: Well, I'm not normally, but I always get into trouble when I don't outline because I always go down blind alleys that I've got to just stop and retrace. According to the contract that I signed, I have to do an outline first, but by the seventh book, all they want is a title and a basic idea of what the storyline is because everybody knows I'm going to do it. I know what the story's going to be. The world is now very big, so there are characters in the current book who play a bigger role in the next book and so on and so forth, so there's a real continuum with all the books. That doesn't mean that you can't just come in in the middle and read them separately -- of course you can -- but for people who follow the series, there's a continuous world that Bourne inhabits.
So, let's talk about your writing schedule.
Lustbader: It's not mechanical. I can't write a scene unless I've visualized it. Unless I can actually see it, and that's why a lot of reviewers have said my books are very cinematic, because I actually do see them before I write them. I'll often wake up with an idea for a scene or a couple of scenes, a sequence, in my head, and then in that case, I'll get up really early, like around 6:00, and work and get the idea down on the page and then go back over it. In other words, I'll do the bones. Whatever is in my head I will write, and that may include all the dialogue but it may not, or it may be just dialogue and then I've got to go back and do the settings and some action; it depends on what scene I'm working on. Either I'm thinking about scenes or I'm writing. I do not go down and sit in front of the computer and make myself write; that's not my style. I mean if you lined up 100 writers, you'd get 100 different ways in which they write. There's no right way or wrong way to do it; it's whatever your process is. If I'm not able to go forward for whatever reason, I'll read or I'll go in the pool. Water is always a great way for me to think. To be honest with you, I wasn't sure, after all of that, I was going to take the Bourne assignment. I went home and woke up the next morning and went into the shower, and by the time I came out of the shower I had the whole plot for The Bourne Legacy. Invariably, I go in the pool and I'm enjoying myself, and boom, something will hit me and I'll have to run out of the pool and go write the scene. That's just what...somehow water, being in the water, is a kind of a break of my environment; I feel like I'm away from everything, and somehow it kicks my subconscious into high gear. People can go take a drive or go to a different place, but for me that's not always the right way.
Have you ever given any thought to doing a self-published e-book?
Lustbader: Well, my agent and I are working on that. We've gotten all the rights back to my books from publishers, and we're working on an e-book project for my backlist. Believe it or not, The Ninja and all of those are not in e-book form yet. None of them are in e-book, so we're working on that first. As far as self-publishing an e-book. It's been on the periphery of my thoughts for a while. Don't forget, I'm writing 2 books a year... so I don't have a tremendous amount of free time. But, yeah, it's been in my thoughts. It would probably be a continuation of the Nicholas Linnear character from The Ninja because I see a lot of... fans just keep clamoring for it, but I don't feel a lot of excitement from publishers for me to do it, basically because Japan is not in the news at the moment and hasn't been for a while, so I don't think they see it as a relevant kind of thing. It might be something where I might do a short story or novella and publish it and see how that it goes and if it goes well, then I might do a novel. But, you know, there are just so many hours in the day, and unless I give up sleep altogether there's just so much I can do.